Great drives: the bleak beauty of Iceland’s Arctic Coast Way

2

At the tip of the Troll Peninsula, in Iceland’s far north, Siglufjordur could scarcely be more cut off. Sandwiched between a fjord and a wall of mountains, the town’s primary link to the outside world is a narrow 11km-long road tunnel that was only finished in 2010.

Yet for much of the last century this was Iceland’s boomtown, the engine of the national economy thanks to its prodigious output of herring. In 1939, films from Siglufjordur (Siglo for short) were shown at the New York World’s Fair – cranes scooping huge quantities of thrashing silver fish from boats to docks. In summer, the population of 3,000 was augmented by almost 9,000 seasonal workers and “herring girls” – young women who flocked here from remote villages to help process and pack the fish.

It was back-breaking work, performed outside, standing on the 10km of wooden dock built so all the ships could land, and yet a carnival atmosphere prevailed. Money was flooding into town and fortunes were being made – the best musicians in Iceland came to play in the five dance halls, there were two daily newspapers, and most importantly, after months in lonely farms with their parents, the herring girls were free to meet and mingle with the young fishermen. “They called it the Klondike of the north, the Sodom of Iceland,” says Orlygur Kristfinnsson, who was born here in 1949 and became director of the town’s Herring Era Museum. “This is where thousands of couples met, where thousands of families trace their roots.”

Then in 1969, the herring disappeared – presumably the result of overfishing by an ever more efficient fleet. Siglo crashed and the carnival stopped. The population slumped to just over 1,000. The docks were ripped out, or left to crumble into the sea, many of the abandoned factories burnt down.

With the herring gone, the town, like many others along Iceland’s northern fringe, seemed to slip into a long daydream, stuck in an endless Sunday morning after the good times moved elsewhere. Even Iceland’s new boom – tourism – has made relatively few waves up here. Nationally, visitor numbers surged from 489,000 in 2010 to 2.3m last year, but they were concentrated in Reykjavik and the south coast – only 27 per cent ventured anywhere in the sparsely inhabited north.

Now, at last, Siglo and the surrounding region are rousing themselves once more. In June, officials cut the ribbon on the Arctic Coast Way – a new signposted driving route that stretches 900km along the northern coast, from Hvammstangi in the west to Bakkafjordur in the east. The North Iceland tourist board isn’t the first to realise the marketing potential of a few road signs and a hashtag. In 2014 Ireland launched its driving route, the 2,500km Wild Atlantic Way, to counter a fall in international visitors. The following year Scotland unveiled the North Coast 500 – “Scotland’s Route 66” – a 500-mile loop for cars, camper vans and cyclists. They join long established big hitters like Canada’s Icefields Parkway, Australia’s Great Ocean Road, South Africa’s Garden Route, and Germany’s Wine Route. All perform the neat trick of turning what could otherwise be an aimless driving holiday into a mission with a tangible goal, and they have proved astonishingly successful – so much so in the case of the North Coast 500 that residents in remote Scottish communities are now complaining about the traffic.

On paper, Iceland’s Arctic Coast Way is a harder sell. Daytime temperatures typically stay below 10C for nine months of the year; on some winter days the sun makes it above the horizon for less than three hours. Rather than striking out from A to B, the route meanders around six lonely peninsulas on roads that sometimes lack both Tarmac and anything approaching a conventional tourist “attraction”.

The en-route highlights listed on the tourist board website speak of the region’s hardscrabble past – there is a seal museum, a whale museum, a herring museum and an emigration museum. In fact, eight of the site’s first 10 “See & Do” listings are lighthouses, remote and windswept, some derelict, some still operating, none with any visitor facilities. Anyone who makes it all the way to Bakkafjordur will not find bright lights awaiting. “Life revolves mostly round the fish in the sea”, says the website, noting there is also a walking track past some cliffs, abundant birdlife and a swimming pool 30km away.

And yet arriving in Hofsos, a little dazed after a 6am easyJet from Luton and a four-hour drive from Reykjavik, the appeal of the Arctic Coast was immediately apparent. Like most of these communities, it is a weird combination of the wild and the neatly suburban. Four or five short streets of small houses and bungalows are laid out in a grid, with street lights, pavements and a playground for kids. On the far side of the last street is a curb, then nothing but open country as far as you can see – a colossal plain of green-gold grass, curving upwards to a chain of flat-topped mountains, and in the distance the white glow of a small glacier.

Though Hofsos has just 190 residents, it has one of Iceland’s most beautiful swimming pools. Opened in 2010, and designed by Basalt, the architects behind the celebrated Blue Lagoon, it perches on a cliff top. You swim in the clear, geothermally heated water, then pause at the side to look down over the frigid grey fjord, wondering if the ripples are waves or whales. In the distance is the ominous-looking island of Drangey, a rock fortress with black walls rising straight from the water, the remnant of a 700,000-year-old volcano.

After a swim, my family and I retreated to our accommodation, a camper van parked on the edge of the village. Just as social media has helped spread the word about these new driving routes (almost a million people have posted their Wild Atlantic Way shots on Instagram), so the “vanlife” hashtag has remarketed campervanning to a new generation. Ours was from Indie Campers, a tech savvy start-up that began with three second-hand vans in the small Portuguese town of Santo Tirso in 2013. It now has a fleet of 850 across 12 countries, launching in Iceland in June.

Its vans are hard to miss – ours was six metres long, bright yellow and entirely covered in a pop-art mural showing a baby in a space suit smoking a cigar. Occasionally on our four-night trip we passed other vans from the same company; we swapped embarrassed half-waves with their drivers. Looks aside, it was perfect for the trip, fully equipped with two double beds, camping stove, crockery, folding table and chairs. Hotels along the route are scarce (and vacancies hard to find in the short summer season). Wild camping is not allowed but every village has a campsite and reservations are never needed.

In the morning we continued around the Troll Peninsula, on a narrow road with the cold sea crashing to our left, peaks soaring upwards to the right, then through a long tunnel beneath the mountain to Siglufjordur. Rolling into town, there was still a lingering sense of the past. An old herring boat, rusting and rotting, sits on blocks beside a lamppost, while most of the buildings are in the mid-century style of the town’s heyday. But there’s also a smart new hotel, where cocktails were being served by a big sculptural fireplace, and down by the water there was a bustle of visitors in brightly coloured fleece.

And, comical as it might sound, Siglo’s herring museum is a must see. Housed in former boathouses and salting sheds on the dockside, it tells the story of the town’s dramatic boom and bust, known here as the “herring adventure”.

Our van only had a cold shower, but hot water is everywhere in Iceland. In Husavik we took an evening swim in the stunning GeoSea, a series of clifftop infinity pools filled by a chlorine-free mix of geothermal and seawater. Opened last year, it’s another Basalt design, this one offering the chance to drink cocktails from the swim-up bar as you stare out at a lighthouse and the warm steam mingles with sea mist.

Another day we crawled 16km along a gravel track (each bump magnified by the rattle of plates and saucepans) to Grettislaug, a couple of hot springs at the foot of a mountain, across the fjord from Hofsos. This is where, according to the Grettis saga, the 11th-century outlaw Grettir the Strong warmed himself after swimming ashore from his hide-out on Drangey. Other than the springs being built up with stones into pools, not a great deal has changed. There’s a rusty shipping container in which to change, and a small wooden hut selling hot chocolate. As the shafts of golden sunlight poked through the building clouds, it was both bleak and beautiful, sombre and yet somehow uplifting.

We shared the pools with an elderly Icelandic man who had grown up down the coast from Siglo but left long ago and now spent much of the year in Thailand. Emigration has been part of life in these communities since long before Siglo’s crash but now, in summer at least, the reverse is becoming true. In the village of Hauganes we paid our campsite fee to a smiling man from Spain. The guide leading the whale watching trip we took from Husavik was from Oxford. And in the village of Grenivik, home to no more than 300, the English voices in the one shop/café/petrol station turned out to be three young professional footballers, bought in to bolster the village team.

While the waymarked route can lead you to places you’d otherwise miss, it’s a mistake to be slavish about following it. After a cold night on the Tjornes Peninsula, when thick fog enveloped the van, we diverted inland, instantly swapping the grey and damp for a startlingly bright, rocky desert with wide horizons and a lunar feel (this is where Nasa sent Neil Armstrong to train). We rumbled and rattled across the emptiness on an interminable gravel road, until we spotted a surreal sight – a cloud hovering at ground level, bisected by a rainbow. Hidden in a gorge below it was Dettifoss, Iceland’s most powerful waterfall, the hovering cloud created by the spray from 42,000 tumbling gallons per second. We parked and walked closer, thrilled and terrified. We left with soaked clothes, ears ringing, invigorated.

From Dettifoss we turned back west, returning to the Arctic Coast Way and heading in the direction of Reykjavik. At Hjalteyri, on the south eastern side of the Troll Peninsula, we stumbled on the neatest possible example of regeneration and reinvention. On the edge of the fjord a former fish factory – once Iceland’s largest – has been turned into a gallery for contemporary art. We happened on it on the opening day of a new exhibition (“Mild Humidity: the Digital Age of Aquarius”), and there were trestle tables on the quayside, bunting and a stylish crowd drinking free wine in the sunshine. What must have been a place of monotonous toil was now the backdrop for the bohemian goodlife.

We followed the crowd inside and through the factory’s vast concrete spaces. There were conceptual paintings and video installations, curators’ notes as impenetrable as any in London or New York and, pervading the whole place, a strong smell of herring.

Follow @FTLifeArts on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first. Listen and subscribe to Culture Call, a transatlantic conversation from the FT, at ft.com/culture-call or on Apple Podcasts